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Not Equal Opportunity, But Every Opportunity: An Argument For Single-Sex Education

October 8, 2010, 8:19 pm

A longer version of this post was written as a talk I gave at a large public university in spring 201 that has a small residential college dedicated to women.  

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes
Photo credit:  Sophia Smith Collection

Picture this. An intelligent and ambitious young woman leaves her home for a women’s college. Upon arrival, she finds a faculty committed to progressive internationalism, free speech, civil rights, feminism and anti-racism. She finds a campus where women are encouraged to pursue careers in the sciences, the arts and to make a difference in public life during an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. Encountering the women and men on the faculty over the four years of her education, often in small seminar classes, she comes to understand what it means to dedicate herself to meaningful work. At a women’s college, this student comes to know, as the President of Mount Holyoke, Joanne Creighton, said to me recently, “what it means for a woman to have the right to be the center of attention.”

Being the center of attention isn’t easy, of course: it’s hard work. This young woman’s peers and teachers push her to argue her ideas with conviction in class and in the dining hall. When she joins the student newspaper, she engages forcefully with global politics, the politics of class and race on campus, and with the institutional challenges that an uncertain economy and a war present for her generation.

This young woman’s education will be a platform for her to spend her life in journalism, labor organizing, civil rights, anti-nuclear politics, and feminist institution building, all the while wrestling with the complicated juggling act of combining an intense work life with community service and family. But because of this women’s college, the biographer of this woman will write, she and her generation of women will meet their destiny encouraged “to assume leadership positions and…take themselves, their ideas, and their ambition seriously.” On a campus dedicated to women, they will find “a world unavailable in their hometowns…where girls [can] become young women with a sense of independence from reigning social and political norms.”

The young woman I just described was Bettye Goldstein – perhaps you know her as Betty Friedan, a founder of the National Organization for Women and a Smith College graduate. But I could have been describing a woman leader from any class or racial background. She could have been Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School and also a founder of NOW (Hunter College); Madeleine Albright and Hilary Rodham Clinton, the first and second women to be appointed Secretary of State (Wellesley); chemist Patricia Smith Campbell, inventor of the transdermal patch (Douglass); Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female President of Harvard University (Bryn Mawr); or Marian Wright Edelman, founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund (Spelman).

Many graduates of women’s colleges are more like me: trying to live life with integrity, write the best book on the history of feminism to appear in a decade, and thinking about the next career move. I haven’t won the Pulitzer Prize yet (only a few smaller ones), but having attended a school outside Philadelphia, founded in 1888 to prepare women for Bryn Mawr College, let me tell you I was educated to expect prizes. At my all-women’ secondary school, I had the astonishing good luck to be taught by feminists who never told me that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do anything because I was a woman. I had science teachers who responded to questions by creating research projects outside class; a Latin teacher who signed us up for citywide translation contests to make us work harder; a chemistry teacher who wouldn’t let us stop working on the problem sets until they were right; and history teachers who expected that all papers would contain primary research.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s being told, as a woman, that anything was within your grasp if you only tried, was a big deal. It happened only at private school and at the prestigious public Girls High in Philadelphia. Part of how the message of gender equality was conveyed was through rigorous competition and not being permitted to take refuge in any notion of female inferiority or weakness. I remember one moment, famous at our school, when a parent went to the headmistress to complain about an athletic contest played in the rain – something boys did routinely at their schools. It is said that this mother was asked firmly and politely in return: “Are you under the impression that young women melt?”

What I remember most about a single sex education was the assumption that we all would go on to do something significant. The ethic of our school was that women were entitled to labs, and languages, all the spots on the editorial board, all the parts in the play, as much math and science as we could learn, all the class offices and team captaincies, and the best colleges we could get into. The school’s web page says today: “Girls enjoy not just equal opportunity but every opportunity.”

One of the ironies of the educational achievements made by graduates of women’s schools, both private and public, was their demise. In the 1970s, feminists made access to formerly male bastions part of their policy agenda. As women like me entered the Ivies, public and Catholic universities, women’s colleges struggled to recruit, and many closed their doors, became coeducational, or were absorbed by male schools as part of a coeducation project.

Arguably, however, something was lost: a set of institutions that nurtured a feminist vision. So tomorrow, let’s talk about why there is still an argument for creating and supporting spaces for women’s education.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.

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